Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Morning Thanks--Hammerin' Hank remembered

He was just 23 years old when, in 1957, he won the MVP award. I was in third grade, and hard as it might be to believe, I don't think I thought of him as black. He'd come up from the Negro league, in fact, the very last player from there to arrive in the Bigs, at a time when African-Americans were just beginning to get a place in MLB dugouts. 

Seems to me that Billy Bruton played next to him in centerfield, so he wasn't alone on the roster. But he was early. Those old pics of that 1957 team--World Champ Milwaukee Braves!--have four or five others. There were others.

No matter. All I know was that when I was a kid, on many a night I fell asleep with the Braves game still playing on that little radio up above my bed, it's soft yellow light over the dial. I loved going to bed with the Braves on, loved it so much that there were nights when I didn't even nod off.  

Coming into the ninth, the Braves may have trailed, but if the heart of the lineup was on its way to the plate, there was always a chance. Hank Aaron was there, batting in the third position, followed by Matthews, the third basement, at cleanup. Those two guys could hit. And did. That's what I remember thinking about Hammerin' Henry Aaron--the guy could hit. 

Really, he was a little guy. Eddie Matthews was beefy; he looked like he could jack the long ball out of County Park Stadium. But Henry was a wiry six-footer who weighed in at a good deal less than 200 pounds. Muscle-y? --sure. But Aaron had great wrists, my father used to say, great wrists that snapped that bat with so much torque the stadium walls came tumbling down. 

The biggest story of his professional life was how he finally outdid the Babe and ended his career with 755 round trippers. That was two decades later, in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, the year our daughter came into the world. By that time I was well aware of his being African-American, as was the nation, because hate mail and death threats arrived in his mail daily as he climbed ever closer to Babe Ruth's otherwise untouchable record. All that hate on its 200th birthday made the country look menacing.

"You are not going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it," some guy told him in a letter. "Whites are far more superior than jungle bunnies. My gun is watching your every black move."

Generations of kids today can't imagine someone capable of such wicked hate, but it was in the air in 1976. The man who wrote those lines wasn't alone. An African-American was threatening a great man's home-run record, a great hitter who was white. Things like weren't supposed to happen.

The Postal Service gave him an award that year for getting mail, nearly a million letters (long before email), thousands and thousands in that massive bag full greatly supportive and loving. But America's finest racists couldn't go down without threatening a noose from the old days. 

But they couldn't stop him. He was just too good. Hammerin' Hank still owns a shoebox full of major league records: most career runs batted in at 2,297, total bases at 6,856, and extra base hits at 1477. 

There's more--lots more, but I thought of him on Saturday, couldn't help it really when I saw his name on a stone beneath my feet. Here it is.

There's his footprints on the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King National Monument in Atlanta. He's in good company--Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, Senator Edward Brooke, Rosa Parks, President Jimmy Carter, and more than a dozen others. Some things tells me Hammerin' Hank is fully as proud of being here as he is in Cooperstown.

Breaking that record wasn't easy, not at his age. He played in 3300 ball games, third place all-time. But it wasn't easy either to live as long as he did in the eye of a racial storm that will likely never fully pass somehow off the cost and out to sea.  

When Barry Bonds broke Hammerin' Hank's record in 2007, Aaron didn't make a big deal out of it because, he told a reporter, baseball isn't about records. It's about playing to one's own greatest potential. 

That day in Atlanta, he hit number 715, one more than the Babe, that day when some people were actually scared of what could happen, the image I like best is that when Henry Aaron came around third, there at the plate stood his parents. Isn't that just the greatest? 

It was nice seeing him again last Saturday. This morning, I'm thankful for that sidewalk, those footprints, and the tracks he left in my own life.

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